The Dead and the Living: Natural History’s Two Key Pillars in New Art Exhibition

Written by Jack Ashby, Manager of the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, and curator of ‘Evolution as Inspiration’

Over the past year, I’ve been working with one of the world’s leading naturalists, Jonathan Kingdon, to produce an exhibition of his artworks, entitled Evolution as Inspiration. Translating his science through his art, Kingdon has sought to explore and explain the how’s of why’s of animal appearances.

Beaks as Flags (detail), 2010. Jonathan Kingdon

Although it is an art exhibition of ceramics, sculpture, paintings and drawings, in several senses a natural history museum like ours is the perfect place for this show. Evolution as Inspiration is arranged in two parts. One focusses on the drawings Kingdon made whilst dissecting animal carcasses as he sought to document and understand the adaptations beneath the skin; the other explores his scientific analysis of the evolution of animal signalling and colouration, resulting from decades of observing the behaviours of wild animals.

These two elements of Kingdon’s work reflect two central pillars of natural history: what we can learn from dead specimens is very different to what we can understand by watching live animals in the field. These dual strands of zoological research are also embodied by the history of our collections, and by the people who work and study here in the Museum, in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology in which we are embedded, and in the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI) with whom we worked with to co-curate this exhibition.

Asking Questions of the Dead

Encounters with dead specimens in the museum and on the dissection table (or in Kingdon’s case with some of the giant African species he studied, on the lawn of his garden!) allow us to investigate animals on our own terms. The questions we can ask of carcasses and museum objects enable the exploration of the evolutionary history of animals, and for us seek to find not just what they do, but how they do it. This has been the mainstay of museum research for nearly two centuries. Natural history collections are primarily used by scientists to answer questions of how animals “work”, and how they fit into the vast evolutionary story of life on earth. Kingdon’s dissection drawings are a different manifestation of this kind of detailed specimen-based study.

Flayed aardvark. Adult male, Lwentenga, C. Uganda, 1967. Jonathan Kingdon

As an aside, I spent some incredible time with Jonathan recording the stories behind these dissections, and these feature in the interpretation of the drawings. This may be my favourite:

“This big male lion was given to me as a very fresh corpse after dying of disease. It was dumped on my lawn, and I had to lift him up. As I threw him over my shoulders, all the air in his lungs came through his throat, and there was a tremendous roar in my ear. I dropped it and leapt back in shock, but of course he was stone dead.”

Meetings with the Living

Something very different is happening when we sit and watch animals going about out their daily lives in the wild. In the museum setting, the animals have been removed from the context of the environment to which they are adapted. By contrast, researchers working in the field are able to piece together a different kind of picture. Observing how animals behave in their habitats – how they interact with each other and the specific environmental conditions in which they live – helps us to understand why animals are the way they are.

Rhinoceros hornbill – Food mimic, 2014. Jonathan Kingdon.
Is the way to a hornbill’s heart through her stomach? Kingdon suggests that this species’ “horn” mimics the fruit the males feed the females.

The second half of Evolution as Inspiration is based on Kingdon’s scientific analysis of how and why animal appearances and signals have come to be. Through a lifetime of detailed study of living animals in the field, Kingdon has proposed answers to questions such as why the zebra is so strikingly striped, how certain groups of birds evolved to show such a diversity of forms, and why vultures’ heads resemble rotting flesh. In combination, his understanding of what is going on under the skin and how animals use their external colours and patterns in life have allowed him to develop acute scientific insights into animal evolution and adaptation.

Together, these two ways of studying animals build a fuller picture – neither tells the whole story on its own.

The research going on behind the scenes in our Museum, in the Zoology Department and the CCI includes both of these strands – studying the living and the dead. Kingdon’s work fits perfectly into this setting. The key difference is, of course, the way that Kingdon uses his innovative artistic practices to communicate his science.

Evolution as Inspiration

The second way in which art like this is perfectly at home amongst a natural history museum’s displays is in the underlying philosophy. The title is quite literal: Kingdon has found inspiration for the artworks in the evolutionary mechanisms he has observed and analysed throughout his career. Indeed, some of the works specifically model, replicate or reflect the processes of evolutionary divergence.

Evolution on the Wing, 1997. Jonathan Kingdon

Similarly, the fundamental aim of the University Museum of Zoology – like most similar museums – is to inspire a sense of awe and wonder in the diversity of life on earth. The displays are intended to instil an appreciation for the products of over half a billion years of evolution: we seek to use evolution as inspiration. There is only so far that natural history books and television can go in providing a perspective on nature. Museums truly are sites of inspiration, and our currency is evolution.

Art as Inspiration

The division between art and science which education seems built around today – which only really became ingrained in the nineteenth century – is artificial. Both are deeply creative, and both are thoroughly analytical. This exhibition is the perfect demonstration of this: Kingdon’s science has never been separate from his art.

He is an extremely accomplished zoological researcher. His influence on natural history – particularly on our understanding of the biodiversity, biogeography and behaviour of African mammals – is immense. His books cover every single species of mammal in Africa, and are based on a deep knowledge and experience of them.

Like this exhibition, Kingdon’s books combine his art with his science in a way that few – if any – others do. He doesn’t simply display what the animals look like, but explains how they behave and how they have evolved through illustration.

Natural history museums are also sites of visual communication: the stories they tell are made live by the specimens people see. And so it is with the artworks in this exhibition: Kingdon’s extraordinary insights into the natural world are made real by his ability to explain using paints, inks, bronze and clay.

But don’t take my word for it. As Sir David Attenborough said when he opened the exhibition in May:

‘[T]here is a new dimension to the Museum’s exhibits in this amazing, unprecedented, unique and unforgettable exhibition. It’s a joy.’

L-R: John Fanshawe (who I worked with in CCI to curate the exhibition),
Sir David Attenborough, Jonathan Kingdon and Jack Ashby
© Lloyd Mann / University of Cambridge

The exhibition ‘Evolution as Inspiration’ is at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, from Friday 17th May to Sunday 15th September 2019.

Artwork photography: O. Negra, MUSE-Science Museum

A version of this article first appears in the exhibition’s catalogue, on sale at the Museum.

2 thoughts on “The Dead and the Living: Natural History’s Two Key Pillars in New Art Exhibition

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